Study looks at energy levels of Provo firefighters PDF | Print | E-mail

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KATIE ASHTON - Daily Herald
When one moment offers sweet slumber and the next blaring lights and alarms, firefighters can't afford to focus on themselves -- let alone what their bodies are telling them.

"You go from zero to full throttle when the lights come on," Provo Fire Capt. Lynn Schofield said. The alarms sound during emergencies.

Looking at the unpredictable nature of his work, Schofield began to question what happens to the body when it is frequently ripped from a dead sleep and thrown into a heart-pumping scenario. These types of situations can do a number on a firefighter's cardiovascular system over the years, he said. With this high-stress line of work, the No. 1 cause of death in the field is heart attacks and strokes.

In light of February being hailed as Heart Healthy Month -- and a need to fulfill his executive fire officer certification requirements -- Schofield decided to poke, prod and demand 40 minutes of pure exhaustion in the wee hours of the morning from 11 firefighters who volunteered to measure what happens to their hydration and glucose levels when they go from zero to 60.

Schofield thinks firefighters need to pay more attention to their nutrition at night in order to maintain their energy for calls that could come at any time.

To gain an insight to the human body's response to stress and labor at night, Schofield, with the help of Intermountain Workmed, has arranged for his volunteers to hit the gym for a two-week study. For the first week, volunteers were roused from bed at 2 a.m. for a field trip to Gold's Gym for a 40-minute workout on an elliptical exercise machine. The second week they're getting a break, sleeping an extra two hours before their workout starts.

The firefighters, wearing 50-pound gear, have their vitals and a blood sample taken prior to working out, then they hop on the machine, Schofield said. The elliptical machine with arm bars was chosen because the machine can be set on a random program and works arms and legs.

It's the best simulation Schofield has available to physically test his volunteers.

"You get super sweaty, really, really fast," said firefighter and volunteer Chuck Smartt.

Smartt said waking up at 2 a.m. is like any work day. The study, although well rounded, doesn't compare to the actual demands of a real emergency, he said.

"It's a lot more intense work," he said, "and you can't duplicate the stress level."

The temperatures firefighters work in are more intense than wearing full gear while exercising. The study can't fully simulate what the body endures during a fire, he said, because there is external and internal heat working against a firefighter.

But the study isn't a balmy experience. The volunteers come out with internal temperatures a little higher than 101 degrees.

After their workout is finished, the firefighters' vitals and blood samples are taken a second time for comparison. They are given one bottle of water, and 30 minutes after they exert themselves, they are given a fingerstick -- a quick way to test blood -- to measure their glucose levels.

Then on to the reward: Their choice of a doughnut or cookie.

"Sugar is a fast source of energy," Schofield said.

But the poking doesn't end with the treat -- their blood is drawn a final time after eating to measure the impact of the sugary rehabilitation.

Schofield has started the second half of his study, with the same procedures as the first week but with a 4 a.m. workout and a broth-based soup instead of the high-sugar foods to provide a more balanced source of protein, carbohydrates and sugars.

Even though his study is only half done, Schofield said his preliminary findings indicate the importance of staying well hydrated and the need to replenish nutrients after every call.

"Once you start out behind, you can never catch up," he said.

To help prevent glucose levels from dropping too low, which can lower energy levels to the point of collapse, Schofield said firefighters need to rehabilitate after each call and drinking a sports drink on the way to a fire could help mitigate problems.

Partnering up with Schofield, Intermountain Workmed has provided all of the supplies and lab services to help with his study, Laura Salazar, a company spokeswoman, said.

It's important to discover better ways for firefighters to do their jobs as safely as possible, she said.

"In the community we rely on them as the first responders," to an emergency, she said.